Thai fast food in Midtown: Five words that conjure up soggy stir-fries aging on steam tables or bland fusion fodder.
But Dee Daa, a perky place that just opened on East 44th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues, is actually turning out tasty dishes cooked largely to order and pretty much in the spirit of Thai cuisine — fast. SriPraPhai, this is not. But face it — it’s not so easy to get from Midtown to Woodside, Queens, and back during a lunch break.
And true, Dee Daa may be a silly name, at least in English, but so is Pok Pok Ny, and you don’t hear people picking on that superhot Brooklyn resto on the Columbia Street waterfront because it sounds like a trike.
Most impressive, and unexpected, is Dee Daa’s speed. While rice and a few other things are prepared ahead, much of the food is cooked and assembled to order and served within minutes of being ordered, even during lunch hour. You can watch your lunch being cooked, assuming you can figure out which in the line of chefs is charged with your order. Hot dishes are piping hot and nicely plated.
A young, eager staff stands ready to help with the menu. While the kitchen is primed to serve a predominantly non-Thai audience, it still makes liberal use of unfamiliar seasonings and ingredients, and flavors are layered to impressive depths.
The dishes heated by chili peppers will definitely put a party in your mouth but stop well short of the level of pain demanded by many Thais. If you’re disappointed, you can easily get extra doses of hot sauce — as well as sweet chili sauce — out of condiment pumps on the counter to the left of the pickup area.
The restaurant also gets high marks for its packaging. Rather than contribute to the usual depressing piles of plastic bags and clam shells, Dee Daa serves its takeout inspired by the traditional “pinto,” a device that lets you stack courses one on top of the other, similar to an Indian tiffin. Trays for meals eaten in-house are reusable, and while forks and spoons are plastic, the plates and bowls are 100 percent biodegradable.
Fairly comfortable seating is provided for about 25 people, but carryout predominates. In the smallish dining room, the surroundings are cheery without being insufferable, and background music is unobtrusive. The decor incorporates samples of some of the food’s more exotic ingredients, and video screens aim to explain Thai food to the uninitiated — haven’t you always wondered why they call them “drunken noodles”? (It’s a long story.)
The menu of Dee Daa, which means joy in Thai, hangs over the main counter on a big board, and it takes a bit of study to figure out how to order. There are four categories of main dishes — noodles, curry, rice and stir-fry — and three variations in each category. The hot dishes are marked with one chili pepper or two, and there’s a selection of flavored teas, iced and hot, to tamp down the spice.
After choosing a main dish, you decide which “protein” to add: chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, tofu or veggies. Main dishes cost $7.81 with chicken, tofu or veggies; $8.27 with beef or pork; and $9.18 with shrimp. Add $2.30 to $2.76 for an extra dose of protein.
Dee Daa suggests you combine your main course with a side dish, and I agree. The soups are brimming with flavor and curious bits of who-knows-what. The salads, while less exciting, are still a crunchy accompaniment. Other sides were not so memorable. All are well priced at $2.53.
My favorite dish was the drunken noodles, which I ordered with chicken. The thick flat noodles are stir-fried with carrot, onion, greens, chili, basil and those tiny corn cobs that Tom Hanks ate so endearingly, typewriter style, in “Big.” A karee curry with pork was like a Chinese pork fried rice, only tangier, with savory-and-sweet spikes of cumin and coconut milk. A red curry with shrimp layered thin carrot slices, basil, chili and small wedges of undistinguished pumpkin on a bed of rice. The shrimp were lost in the sauce.
The lemongrass soup burst with appeal, with the heat clearly present but under control. The broth was flecked with baby tomato and chewy white mushroom. Be sure to pick out the tough shreds of kaffir lime leaves.
Dee Daa’s green papaya salad falls well short of the lip-searing version you find in a full-fledged Thai restaurant. But for fast food, it’s respectable enough, layering long slivers of carrot and green papaya over lettuce, topped with peanuts and a tangy dressing.
Dee Daa is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is located at 155 E. 44th Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues; (646) 396-6500.
Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.